By Stephen Basdeo
As one of England’s most famous historical figures, the name of Robin Hood appears in countless records. The first record we have of a man named Robin Hood is in the York Assize Records for the years 1225–26. This man is listed as a ‘fugitive’ and it is him whom scholars such as J. C. Holt argue was the ‘real’ Robin Hood. The fictional outlaw who appeared in countless poems, songs, ballads, and novels also inspired other people to take his name. Thus we have Robin Hoods who appear in medieval court records during the 1300s and the 1400s.
On a recent work-related trip to London, I got chance to pop into the Foundling Hospital where, to my surprise, I found another person—a young boy—also named Robin Hood, although he did not live in the medieval period but actually lived in the Georgian era.
How on earth did a lad called Robin Hood appear in the records of an eighteenth-century institution?
To begin with, let us briefly consider the context:
A ‘foundling’ is an archaic term for our modern word ‘orphan’, although a foundling usually would have had no knowledge of whom his parents were, whereas orphans might well do, and foundlings were usually from poorer families.
Foundling (noun): an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.
If you were poor in eighteenth-century London—if you had found yourself out of work, or if you were a woman and your husband had died leaving you penniless—you weren’t totally friendless. Since the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, the government deemed that parishes should assist those who had fallen on hard times by giving them ‘outdoor relief’. Paupers could apply to the local parish and they would be assisted with money, food, clothing, or goods to get by until their situations improved. This was often much preferable to having them enter one of the parish almshouses or workhouses.
If you were a woman on your own in London with a child or several children to support, you might leave your child in the care of the Foundling Hospital. This was often done in order for a woman to get back on her feet while she worked and earned money, with the intention of collecting her child later once she was earning a bit more. The child may also have been born out of wedlock, which would have made it difficult to for her to secure work if she had a child, owing to the prejudices of the time.
At other times, condemned criminals might, in their last hours, implore the governors of the hospital to take care of their children after death. Giuseppe Ricciardelli, an Italian immigrant sentenced to death in 1752, wrote to a friend and asked him whether he might do him one last favour after he had gone:
…and particularly beseeching you, if possible, to get the Child to be admitted into the Foundling Hospital and educated in the Protestant Religion.[i]
The Foundling Hospital was set up in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram in 1739; the first children admitted were sent to live with nurses before a purpose-built facility was opened in 1745, the remains of which can be visited today at Coram’s Fields, London.
Coram was a naval captain but on his retirement, but the reason why he set up the hospital was because, having returned to London, he was dismayed at what he saw: orphans living on the street left to fend for themselves. While he and his wife did not have children of their own, they resolved set themselves a mission to save the children.
To raise money, the Corams enlisted the help of the great and the good and got them to donate money. Georg Handel lent his assistance and even conducted a special performance of his celebrated oratorio Messiah for a charity concert—the concert was fully booked and tickets for the event ask ladies not to wear their hoops and gentleman to attend without their swords. The Corams made the plight of pauper children fashionable.
So how did a child end up in the Foundling Hospital?
A mother would deposit her child with the receiving officer. The mothers would leave some kind of token with the hospital so that they would know their child if they returned to collect them at any point. These tokens could be all sorts of items: the exhibits in the Foundling Hospital show that mothers left rings, coins, buttons, badges, pieces of string and even nuts. The fact the hospital still has many of these tokens is a sad testament to the fact that many mothers and their children were never reunited.
Once the child had been admitted, they were given a new name which was entered in the register. There is a wonderful assortment of names to be found in the records of the Foundling Hospital, which were often taken from famous historical figures. It was hoped that a new name might enable the child to have a completely new start and that their lives might be free from prejudice, particularly necessary if their mother was a ‘fallen’ woman.
As one might expect, quite a few were named after their ‘adopted’ father, Thomas Coram; there are a few Walter Raleighs and Francis Drakes, named after the illustrious Elizabethan seafarers; and it is in these records that we find our little Robin Hood, a name given him by a Mr Edwards who worked at the Foundling Hospital.[ii]
Robin’s parents’ names are not recorded, and we do not know his date of birth, but we know that he was baptised on 25 May 1746. He would have been less than a year old when admitted and, just like the children admitted to the hospital in the earliest days, would have been sent to live in a foster home until the age of 5. He would then have been readmitted to the hospital to receive a rudimentary education, until having been apprenticed to a trade or forced to enlist in the military at age 15.
Further archival work will be required to ascertain what happened next to our eighteenth-century Robin Hood. Luckily, there are no records of anyone bearing his name hanged in the Old Bailey Record (which are all now online, free to search and view) — maybe he went on to prosper in a trade? Maybe, and hopefully, he may finally have been reunited with his mother who left him at the hospital in the hope of a better life?
[i] The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, 23 March 1752, cited in Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 259.
[ii] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4396
Berry, Helen, Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)
Holt, J. C., Robin Hood, 2nd Edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989)